Women often say they prefer taller men - but the reality is more complicated
- Men are an average of about 5 inches taller than women.
- Scientific studies suggest that while women might say they have a preference for taller male partners, actual height differences in heterosexual couples aren't as wide as stated height preferences.
- Shorter men do tend to marry younger and lower-educated women, and psychologists think that might be because they're "compensating" for their shortness.
The average American woman, standing at just over 5 feet 3 inches tall, is around five and a half inches shorter than the average American man.
It's a height difference that holds true in most places around the world, from Brazil to China. Men tend to universally level-off around five inches taller than women as fully-grown adults.Still, the science of what constitutes the "perfect" height difference for a modern couple is far from settled.
Women say they prefer tall men
Social scientists who study online dating platforms find that when you're dating online, your height can alter your chances of finding love, a lot. Researchers consistently find that women will say they prefer taller men online, and the taller women are, the more important they say it is that their partner be even taller. Men, likewise, tend to rate shorter women as more attractive. One 2005 study found that those preferences can play out in how often people approach each other online: women who were 6'3" tall received 40% fewer messages than women who were a more average 5'5", while men who were 6'3" and 6'4" got about 60% more messages than men who were 5'7" or 5'8".
Polish scientists have shown that male and female preferences for a height difference (known scientifically as sexual dimorphism) change based on how tall they are, perhaps so that people can widen their own dating pool.
But there are signs that these stated height preferences are a result of societal expectations, not evolutionary biases. Perceptions of the right height for a couple may be largely rooted in cultural expectations. One 2014 study in the Journal of Family Issues found through online surveys that daters "were not always able to articulate a clear reason why they possess their given height preference, but they somehow understood what was expected of them from the larger society."
Adding more evidence to the pile, a 2013 study found that while short women and tall men might say they prefer sexually dimorphic pairings, their actual choices for mates didn't necessarily stick to such a strict criteria. And most men dating on eHarmony said they wanted a partner that was close to their own height, as FiveThirtyEight reported.
Being tall is a power playThere's a history of power dynamics at play with height differences, and it extends beyond romance. A 2014 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that short men tend to marry younger and disproportionately lower-educated women.
"Gender ideals are linked to stature such that tallness is associated with dominance, masculinity, and higher status among men," the authors said.
Plenty of other studies have shown it's not just women who factor this in: tall men get a better deal when it comes to pay and status at work, too. They make more money, and they may even be more likely to get promoted. (Most Fortune 500 CEOs are taller than average men.) Evolutionary psychologists argue this is because being tall is a sign that a man can dominate a predator and protect his family.
Height, like other physical attributes, can be a "form of capital on the spousal market and then bargained with or compensated for within relationships."
But some scientists think this ingrained social preference for tall husbands and fathers may not be doing us any good anymore. As one pair of sociologists from The University of North Texas and Rice put it, "in a society that encourages men to be dominant and women to be submissive, having the image of tall men hovering over short women reinforces" the very idea that men must be the aggressors and the chasers when it comes to romantic relationships. That's a paradigm that actresses, dominatrixes and porn stars are all working to challenge.